Street fighting rages in western Libyan city
Misurata pounded by rockets, shells; 17 reported dead
AJDABIYA, Libya — Holding out under a rain of shelling and sniper fire, Libyan rebels fought Moammar Khadafy’s forces yesterday in close-quarter battles in the center of Misurata, the last major rebel foothold in western Libya. Seventeen people were killed, said an aid worker and an opposition activist.
Government troops have been laying siege to the city on Libya’s Mediterranean coast for weeks, prompting repeated international warnings of a dire humanitarian situation as well as calls for NATO forces to intensify air strikes on Khadafy’s forces there.
Yesterday, government troops, who reached the city center from the outskirts in recent days, pounded Misurata with mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, said resident Abdel-Salam, who only provided his given name for fear of retribution.
“Residents have become so accustomed to the sound of mortars and missiles,’’ he said. “Snipers are still on the roofs of tall buildings shooting at anything that moves in the city center.’’
Rebels fought government forces back from an area around a central produce market, regaining a small sliver of territory, said Rida al-Montasser, a local activist reached by Skype.
He said a hospital report that he received from a doctor showed 17 people, including rebels, were killed and 74 were injured. He said Khadafy forces fired at the hospital yesterday.
A worker for a foreign nongovernmental organization who visited the hospital yesterday also said 17 bodies were brought in, including a girl shot in the head. Other children were among the wounded, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.
Explosions thundered late into the night, Montasser said.
In eastern Libya yesterday, government forces shelled the eastern edge of Ajdabiya, the front-line rebel town that has been the scene of fierce fighting in recent weeks.
Loud explosions rocked the city throughout the morning, sending a column of cars — some with rebel fighters, others with families — fleeing north through a thick sandstorm to more securely held rebel territory.
Rebel forces fired back with rockets, and no government forces entered the city, said rebel fighter Awad Sathi.
Rebels acknowledged the military setback a day after claiming they had reached the outskirts of the oil town of Brega, about 60 miles to the west.
The NATO-led air campaign authorized by the United Nations to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone has failed to stop government shelling of Misurata that, according to residents and witnesses, has hit the hospital, the port, and residential areas.
International air strikes have kept rebels from being defeated on the battlefield by better trained and equipped government forces, but they have not been enough to turn the tide in the war. Rebels have controlled most of the eastern half of Libya since the uprising began on Feb. 15, but they have been unable to advance westward toward Tripoli, the capital.
In Paris, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet dismissed statements from a top NATO official that the alliance is short of aircraft. Longuet said instead that NATO’s mission in Libya is hampered by a lack of ground information.
“There is no lack of planes but a lack of identification of mobile objectives,’’ he said in an interview published yesterday in the daily Le Parisien. “The problem is that we’re missing concrete and verifiable information on identified objectives on the ground.’’
Longuet said that “coalition aviation is capable of breaking all logistical provisions of Khadafy’s troops’’ to the east. But he acknowledged that in urban combat, “if the aviation avoids tragedies, it still isn’t solving the problem.’’
After a meeting of NATO foreign ministers last week in Berlin, the alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said NATO needed “a small number of precision aircraft’’ to hit Khadafy’s forces.
The Libyan government has come under sharp international criticism for its assault on Misurata and has been accused by human rights groups of using heavy weapons, including shells, missiles, and cluster bombs. Such bombs can cause indiscriminate casualties and have been banned by many countries.
Major General Saleh Ibrahim denied Libyan forces have used cluster bombs, saying the army did not have such weapons and that Libyan soldiers had not been trained in their use.
Yesterday, Ibrahim said NATO is taking sides in the conflict and renewed claims that fighters from the Al Qaeda terror network have joined the rebels.
“NATO is supporting the rebels, allowing them to advance against our army, providing them with air cover,’’ he said. “It knows about the arming of rebels by the Qatari government and is allowing that. NATO knows about Al Qaeda activities in Benghazi, Darna, and Beyda. It knows that Al Qaeda fighters are advancing westbound.’’